Category Analysis: Ergonomics

As companies strive to meet the needs of their employees, furniture takes centre stage with productivity, comfort and safety all a requirement

A decade or so back it would have been fairly easy to describe the typical office.Uniform desks? Check. Adjustable seating? Check. Partition screens? Check.

Since then, we have had a worldwide economic crash that has forced some people into different working habits, while technology such as the cloud, smartphones and tablets have given others the opportunity to free themselves from the constraints of an office.

Getting into work early to get ahead of the game seems to be the norm, and for many employees across the globe, the time spent at the office has either grown longer or become more spasmodic.

Indeed, a report last year suggested that around 82% of people in the UK are working more than 40 hours a week. A similar report in the US broke it down into gender groups, with 86% of men and 66% of women working more than a 40-hour week.

These changes in work habits have naturally had an impact on the type of furniture needed in the workplace, but are enough companies wise to the needs of their employees?

Pent-up demand

It is a topic that Steelcase CFO Dave Sylvester touched on in a recent earnings conference call in February, when he said: “Work is changing at a dramatic pace and companies have not significantly invested in their space in the last 15 years. There’s pent-up demand to modernise that space.”

So there is belief within the OP industry that there is a need, and it would appear that clients are telling dealers, manufacturers and others what they want.

General Manager of Safco Products, Nat Porter, says: “People want to be more active. They want to socialise and collaborate more, and yet need spaces to concentrate. More informal ways of working is the key.”

It seems this desire for staff to work in more mobile, collaborative settings is already having a positive impact on the OP furniture market – in the US at least. The US Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) announced recently that it expects the US market for office furniture to grow by 4.2% to reach $12 billion this year and by a double-digit 12.1% in 2015 to hit $13.5 billion.

BIFMA also said it expects production to grow by 2.8% in 2014 and 10.4% in 2015. Chief among the reasons for this positive outlook, is the fact that there is the desire for different working spaces to complement the new working habits of employees.

Porter says: “We are working on a group of products that support more active working postures, primarily standing over sitting. In addition to a range of work surface options to support working while standing, we will introduce new footrests designed specifically for people who stand while they work.”

On top of this, the company has been working on its new Kalyde Collection – a line of furniture designed for use away from the traditional desk.

Porter comments: “Most of the furniture we see being used in open, collaborative spaces was designed for the lobby and lounge and was aimed at waiting, not working, areas.

“Kalyde is specifically designed to support small groups of people working for short bursts in informal, in-between spaces.”

Another group of products it is focusing on with ergonomics in mind is one which other manufacturers are paying attention to as well  – sit/stand. Porter says: “The new direction we have taken in ergonomics directly relates to the flexibility of sit and stand. We have been implementing means to make the traditional office space more flexible by having a combination of mobile, modular and sit-to-stand.”

Senior Marketing Communications Manager at Bush Industries, Bruce Younger, told OPI that his company was also targeting the booming sit/stand category after positive feedback from clients.

He says: “The biggest change recently has been that we are looking at introducing a sit/stand height desk. We are finding that there is an interest in the marketplace for people to stand and work on something. We are also looking at adjustable height desks, so they can accommodate people of different heights. There are times when you want to be standing over something, like a blue print for example, and this will really work for that.

Another US manufacturer highlighting sit/stand as an area of growth is MooreCo which explains that, while sales data is still scarce due to the products being so new, it had experienced a “quick acceptance” from the market for its line of products.

VP of Business Development at MooreCo Kris Dixon says: “The new direction we have taken in ergonomics mainly relates directly to the flexibility of sit/stand.”

Like other manufacturers, the company has targeted the traditional office space, but in addition has set its sights on another market – the students and school market – which has also seen a shift towards more mobile needs.

The Up-Rite sit-to-stand student desk with a pneumatic adjustment and a curved desktop is a good example of a product aimed squarely at the education sector.

The Perch sit-to-stand stool, meanwhile, is designed more for leaning than sitting, explains Dixon. “It has a height adjustment and allows an upright carriage position which increases attention span, boosts energy levels and improves metabolism.” She adds: “Repositioning yourself is a big factor since too much time in any position isn’t considered to be the best for your health.”

No place like home

It’s is not just in the office where these products are gaining traction. With changing working habits, more people than ever are now working from home and this means having furniture that works in this space.

Younger says: “Often it makes sense to set your employees up in a home office rather than bringing them in. We have some studies which show that people who are set up in a professional office space at home are more productive than those who have to travel to and from work. They feel more comfortable and relaxed and they still get the work done.”

The manufacturer has a team that goes to the homes of its clients’ employees, assesses the space they work in and comes up with a solution using its furniture.

Younger adds: “It is something we have had success with and one client in particular had around 200-300 home offices.”

With the outlook positive, it is surely time that office furniture stood up for itself.